Tuesday 18 December 2018

Forde focus

Five years into life as a senior county man, the Silvermines sharpshooter is beginning to make his mark as Tipp close in on a league quarter-final

Jason Forde converts a sideline cut for Tipperary during the Allianz NHL clash against Wexford. Photo: Sportsfile
Jason Forde converts a sideline cut for Tipperary during the Allianz NHL clash against Wexford. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Trapped on the boundary between potential and achievement, much of Jason Forde's story so far will have left him feeling like a tourist in someone else's photo album.

It's taken faith and forbearance to get to where he'll arrive in Thurles tomorrow, as Tipperary's go-to forward striving to guide them into the National League quarter-finals. An inter-county life isn't the most rational of existences - especially for the preternaturally gifted - and Forde is living proof.

Within a year of captaining Nenagh CBS to All-Ireland Colleges glory in 2012, the Silvermines kid was being indoctrinated into the life of a senior county man, many predicting a career that would arc to the heights of Tipp's marquee forwards of the time, Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett.

But, maybe, his fate in the summer of 2013 foretold how this was not going to be an uncomplicated journey. Due to make his championship debut that year against Limerick, Forde was struck down by illness the night before, "a bit of a disaster" as he recalled it.

Five years later?

The trumpets are only now beginning to sound in his relationship with Tipp, something reflected in his scoring stats of 3-28 from just three league appearances this year compared to a total of 4-34 from his previous 27.

Seamus Callanan's injury has afforded him consistent game-time in Michael Ryan's attack, Forde devouring the opportunity hungrily.

Ability

Michael Cleary, a four-time All-Star for the county, believes Tipp are finally getting lift-off from a player whose ability could become a game-changer this summer.

"The only surprise to me is that it's taken this long," says the Nenagh man. "Because I've no doubt that he's the real deal. Is he a Joe Canning? No. But he's a rock-solid young fella, a top-class inter-county hurler who will pick up two or three All-Stars along the way.

He has all the attributes, a great attitude, looks after himself, he's brave and can hurl off either side.

"I'm a fan I have to say."

Now into the final year of a business degree at University of Limerick, he crowned his farewell Fitzgibbon campaign in the college colours with a series of stand-out, free-scoring displays culminating with a decisive 1-10 in their final defeat of DCU. A contribution Forde's county and UL colleague John McGrath described as someone "hurling the stuff of his life".

Yet Forde will be 25 in December, so can no longer be seen as some youthful prodigy with abundant time on his side.

Still, his leadership role within a UL side boasting inter-county names like Conor Cleary, Sean Finn, Barry Heffernan, Gearoid Hegarty, David Fitzgerald, Tony Kelly, Ian Galvin and McGrath did suggest a player now taking momentous strides.

UL coach Declan Fitzgerald has worked with Forde since he was a fresher and for him the change in the player has no romantic provenance. It is down simply to consistency of selection.

Fitzgerald explains: "Jason's such a good hurler, everybody knows he can play in so many different positions. But that can actually work against you. Be it inter-county, club or college level, people know they can play him centre-back or midfield and he'll do a good job.

"But as a forward, if you give him good ball, he will finish it. It's not a question of if he can. He will. We were determined that we were going to just play him in the forward line this year.

"I mean my memory of him with Nenagh CBS is that they lost a Harty final with him playing centre-back and won the All-Ireland when he went back up centre-forward. Back into his more natural environment."

A flu-compromised Forde delivered 2-2 in that All-Ireland final against Kilkenny CBS and, that same year, he was the attacking mainstay as Silvermines won a first county title in 14 years as well as a Munster Intermediate title.

It was immediately on conclusion of that odyssey (with All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny's Clara) that he took the call from O'Shea, inviting him on to Tipp's senior panel.

If a gentle rumble of impatience has, since, become the accompanying soundtrack to his time in the blue and gold, Cleary believes Forde should be comforted by the story of the man whose jersey he now wears.

Callanan, after all, made his championship debut in '08, yet had to wait six years before winning the first of his three All-Stars.

Indeed, having been replaced at half-time in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, many wondered if the Drom & Inch man was destined to slip away as just another exotic rumour.

Callanan will be 30 this September, yet it has only been in the last four seasons that he's settled into the role of a marquee county man.

"Up to 2014/'15, you would have had a lot of people saying Seamie wasn't good enough which is incredible given his scoring rate is phenomenal now," says Cleary.

"Like I hope and assume that Callanan has been saying that to Jason. Look, it took me four or five years to kind of settle down at this level. Just keep at it!"

Training

"Because I'm sure if you were Mick Ryan over the last number of years, looking at Jason Forde in training, you've no doubt that this is going to happen. I hope it's happening for real now and I've no reason to believe it's not. Because I've seen him up along at underage, I've seen him with Silvermines, I saw it with the school. Like it can't not happen!"

Cleary believes full-forward to be his best position and it is an opinion backed by former county colleague John Leahy who suspects Tipp's management could have an interesting decision to make on Callanan's eventual return.

"Jason's got more self-confidence now that he's getting regular starts," says Leahy. "When Mick Ryan is picking any team, I'd be surprised if Jason Forde isn't one of the first names he puts down.

"So Mick has to be thinking now, if he moves him out of full-forward when Seamie Callanan comes back, would it upset Jason? Would you be as well to leave him there now and let Callanan find another position? Corner-forward or centre-forward maybe?"

Having lost in league and championship to Cork last season, Tipp will be particularly keen to beat the Rebels tomorrow, allowing Ryan to further explore a squad he believes could be stretched to breaking point this summer by four Munster championship games in as many weeks.

Callanan has missed the entire league so far; John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer hasn't seen action since coming on in the opening round against Clare; Dan McCormack has been restricted to the grand total of eight minutes so far.

That's precisely half of last year's championship attack effectively in dry-dock.

In their absence, Ryan will have been grateful for early-season access to Patrick 'Bonner' Maher (denied him last year) and has, potentially, unlocked an alternative weapon for the inside line in Michael Breen, scorer of 2-3 from play the last day against Kilkenny.

That, of course, was in Forde's absence, he and UL colleague, McGrath, excused action after their Fitzgibbon heroics 24 hours earlier.

So Forde will bring a singular focus to tomorrow's game, especially having missed last year's championship defeat to Cork because of that controversial suspension imposed for a clash with Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald.

Is he ready to move to the next level?

"Well I hope so," says Declan Fitzgerald. "I'd hope he would because he's such a decent fella to work with. He has a huge opportunity this year, given he has a very good start to the year behind him.

"He's very articulate, very smart and he knows his hurling. But I think the big thing about Jason is he wants his hurling to do the talking."

Irish Independent

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